Republicans are holding up emergency coronavirus funding over Democrats' insistence that drug companies can't use the spending as an opportunity to cash in, Senate Democratic leaders said Tuesday.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar sparked a furor last week when he refused to assure House members that any vaccines or treatments for the potential pandemic would be affordable to anyone.
The administration has retreated from that position, saying drugs developed in partnership with the federal government would be affordable, although exactly what level of federal involvement would be required has not been spelled out.
Senate Republicans, though, appear to be balking at writing robust clauses into the emergency appropriations Congress is drawing up that would ensure affordability of drugs and test kits for anyone who needs them.
"In our discussions on the Appropriations Committee, we talked about the fact that millions and millions of dollars, possibly even hundreds of millions of dollars, in taxpayer money, is going to go into developing vaccines and test kits," Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) the top Democrat on the committee told reporters.
"We are not then going to say the companies, after we taxpayers have paid for all this, now go out and make a huge profit on it," Leahy said. "That's not going to happen."
Yet, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Republicans are fighting Democrats on the issue.
"That's one of the disputes that is holding up the bill right now," Schumer said. "Our Republican friends don't want to see the kinds of limitations that we want to see."
Neither Schumer's office nor Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's elaborated much on the sorts of restrictions Democrats want, and that Republicans oppose.
"We want strong provisions to ensure the eventual vaccines are available and affordable to everyone who needs it," Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman said in an emailed comment. "Unclear if Rs will go along with that."
A House Democratic aide confirmed the holdup.
"We are still negotiating a few outstanding items, particularly around the affordability of vaccines and therapeutics developed under this bill," the aide said. "We expect the supplemental to include massive public investment in the development of vaccines and treatments, and it is imperative that Americans are not gouged for the very drugs their tax dollars have paid to develop."
With time being of the essence and the virus spreading in the United States, it is also unclear how hard each side will fight in the interests of taking rapid action.
More than 90,000 people have gotten sick from the viral bug, mostly in China. More than 3,000 people have died, including nine in Washington State. More than 100 cases of the disease have been confirmed in the United States.
Appropriators on both sides of the Hill were pushing to get a funding package on the House floor as soon as Wednesday. It was expected to be in the $7 billion to $8 billion range.
The Trump administration had initially sought just $1.25 billion in new funding. Schumer was hoping for $8.5 billion.
Another issue lawmakers were confronting was how to cover costs for people with no insurance or insufficient coverage.
Anne Schuchat, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told senators at a Senate Health Committee hearing earlier in the day that "Yes, absolutely," it would be beneficial as a public health matter for everyone to get vaccines and treatment.
Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at Health and Human Services, suggested one way to deal with the issue could be invoking a clause in the Stafford Act governing emergency declarations that allows the government to label people as National Disaster Medical System patients. "They or the provider get reimbursed to 110 percent of Medicare rates," Kadlec said at the same hearing. "We're in conversations -- initial conversations with CMS [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] to understand if that could be utilized in this way."
President Trump also suggested Tuesday that uninsured people should get help from the government.
"We're looking at that whole situation," Trump said when asked at the White House about the uninsured. "There are many people without insurance, and we're looking at that situation for those people."